Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Not Quite Shelving Green Dam

News Flash -- The Ministry of Industry and Information Technology has just announced China will delay the mandatory installation of the controversial Green Dam Youth Escort filtering software that was supposed to have been installed in all new computers sold in the country starting tomorrow.

The ministry explained the delay was due to computer manufacturers saying such a massive installation required more time. But there were no further details on when the postponed deadline would be.

This is a major loss of face for the government, as it had insisted there would not be any delays and that the software maker would patch up the program that was found to have numerous security flaws. Opponents also complained that it restricted freedom of information and speech, even though the government had pitched the software as the latest tool in anti-pornography.

Green Dam Youth Escort is also costing the government 41.7 million RMB ($6.1 million), an amount people are now beginning to realize is their own hard-earned money many feel is going to waste.

The People 1, The Government 0.

Consumer Gripes

Yesterday after work I went to the supermarket in the basement of the building I live in to get some ingredients to make some soup.
I was looking for a slice of winter melon and the ones that were already sliced, wrapped in plastic and priced were a bit on the small side, and I was looking for a bigger piece.
Behind the vegetables for sale, I spied a few slices of winter melon that were in plastic wrap, but not priced.
I picked it up and turned to two women behind me who work at the supermarket, asking them to weigh and price it.
"Oh but the people who do that are off work now," one said to me. "Why don't you just get one of these ones," pointing to the smaller ones that were already priced.
I said that I wanted this one that was I was holding because it was bigger than the others.
Then one of the women tried to order another woman into weighing and pricing the winter melon for me, but she too claimed she didn't know the price of it and didn't know how to do that.
It was so frustrating just watching their lack of pro-activeness that I mumbled in English that this was ridiculous and grabbed the piece of melon that was smaller than the one I had hoped to buy.
This scenario just perfectly illustrates China's growing pains as it transforms from a socialist economy to a market one. If it was truly capitalist, the staff would have immediately taken the melon and found someone to price it, or asked someone what the price of it was and weighed it for me. But, because customer service is not a priority in China, it's a market system with Chinese characteristics.
Do the Chinese not get it?
"As China is shifting from an egalitarian society of a market economy, workers in the service sector have not adapted to a new cultural environment where market competition is fierce," claimed Yi Xinfang, professor in the Department of Psychology at Tsinghua University. He blames it on Chinese people not being aware of "Western" service culture.
Why does this always have to boil down to a "Western" thing? Before 1949 there was a market system in China. People had to give good service otherwise they would not be called back again or people would not buy goods from them again. It's simple as that. Good service means repeat business. This is not a foreign concept.
And this is why China is not moving ahead... it's just another headache we have to deal with "because this is China".

Monday, June 29, 2009

Gourmet Feast

The western fine dining scene in Beijing is pretty young. It was only about five years ago that the first independent restaurant was set up just off of Sanlitun apart from hotel restaurants.

But in the last few years a number of fine dining establishments have proliferated in the Chinese capital, each trying to outdo the other.

One of the heavy hitters is Daniel Boulud, who opened Maison Boulud at Qianmen last year and his dishes are unparalleled.

There is no question Boulud has set the bar in Beijing, leaving others in the dust with regards to the quality of the ingredients, execution, presentation and service. The only drawback is that it's right next to the touristy Tiananmen Square, but then that makes his restaurant a destination.

In early May I had written about the three-course set lunch I had there and was immensely impressed by the dishes at such a reasonable price of 165 RMB ($24). It also included an amuse bouche, petit fours and freshly baked madeleines.

On Saturday night my friend and I ventured out there again, this time for dinner. At 7pm there weren't many tables filled and we wondered if Boulud was still struggling to find enough rich Chinese interested in excellent nouvelle French cuisine. But later on the evening, there was almost a full house, bustling with a mixed group of discerning diners and those anxious to flaunt their wealth.

We perused through the menu and found it difficult to decide what to eat. There was a four-course set dinner, a la carte, and also the eight-course tasting menu. My friend wanted to try it and asked me to join him on the culinary journey. So we did.

It started with an appetizer of foie gras, one piece pan-fried, the other in a pate form. A piece of roasted pear sat underneath the pan-fried one in an attempt to cut the richness, while toast with the crusts cut off accompanied the pate.

Pan-fried foie gras doesn't require too much skill, but timing is crucial to sear it on both sides and leave the inside with a smooth and silky texture. This one was just right. And the pate glided on the toast like butter.

The next dish was salad of European asparagus topped with a slow-poached quail egg and garnished with caviar. While the asparagus was thick, it wasn't old, rather refreshing and nicely complemented with the quail egg.

Another delight was the salad of American Dungeness crab with carrots, cumin and avocado. Interspersed with crispy lettuce, the chunks of fresh crab were seasoned with cumin, making it a perfect summer salad for its lightness.

The fourth course was described as a fricassee of langoustine, or scampi, and cuttlefish, with green asparagus and black pepper brandy sauce. Served in a bowl, the cuttlefish were delicately scored and cooked perfectly, and the piece of langoustine very fresh. However it was the intensity of the peppery sauce that made this dish a success, with its strong flavours seasoning the seafood.

The climax of the dinner came in the next course with roasted veal tenderloin with crushed artichokes, porcini mushrooms and black olive jus. The veal medallion was very tender, seared around the edges with sprinkles of sesame seeds, leaving the inside slightly rare. The fresh porcini mushrooms were delightfully rustic and hearty and the artichokes under the veal were a delicate and sophisticated accompaniment to the otherwise masculine dish.

The sixth dish presentation-wise was a bit disconcerting. While I've read that Boulud doesn't like to waste food, it was a bit strange to see an actual pigeon leg complete with toes on our plates with a spring-roll package wrapped around its tiny thigh. Nevertheless, the roasted pigeon breast was delicious and port-braised fig sinful.

We were almost bursting when the plate of three slices French blue cheese again with toast, paper-thin slices of green apple and a small piece of seasoned walnut.

Finally the end was nigh and we just barely had enough room for dessert – a duo of rose parfait with lychee and peanut caramel mousse and peanut milk sorbet. It was a refreshing finish, not too sweet and thankfully light.

But it wasn't over yet. The server brought over a giant glass container and with great ceremony lifted the glass lid and produced a serving dish and serving tools. And inside? Homemade marshmallows, with a double layer in pink and mint green.

Oh and also those fresh Madeleines appeared on our table again… how can one resist?

Without wine, the eight-course dinner was 800RMB ($117) each. We barely walked out of the restaurant, full of divinely-tasting food that has become the envy of my friends who are Boulud fans across the Pacific.

Maison Boulud
No. 23 Qianmen Dong Dajie
6559 9200

Quote of the day: Why the Rich Play Polo

Today's quote of the day comes from a BBC story talking about how rich Chinese are now turning to "the sport of kings", or polo.
Gene Wang, a Shanghainese polo player and former finance player explains why:
"For a certain type of person, who has bought the big house, the fast cars, the designer labels, who has the mistresses, there is a point when you think, what else can I spend my money on?"
He was quick to point out that he wasn't necessarily in that category....

Sunday, June 28, 2009

A Dying Deal

There is now a strong possibility the Chinese firm Sichuan Tengzhong Heavy Industrial Machinery Corp won't be able to acquire Hummer from General Motors.

That's because the Chinese government will probably veto the rumoured $100 million sale, as it goes against Bejing's environmental goals, and the National Development and Reform Commission will say Tengzhong does not have the expertise to run an international brand like Hummer.

While Tengzhong is a private company and is not subjected to as many regulations as state-run fims, the government can still block the sale of Han Ma, or "Bold Horse" in Chinese.

This comes after much controversy over the sale, particularly from critics and ordinary folk pointing out the reasons above mentioned.

And with news like this leaking out before the formal announcement makes it pretty much certain the deal will die.

No senior official would touch this with a 10-foot pole, even if graft was involved.

So if the deal does fall through, China will win brownie points with environmentalists, while its wealthy will complain about having to pay more taxes to import and buy these giant gas guzzlers.

While the country still has overwhelming environmental problems, at least it is trying to decrease its acquisitions in that department.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Trying to be Vigilant

My Caucasian friend and I walked into The Regent hotel near Wangfujing and as soon as we approached the desk to make an inquiry, a female staff member asked him to do a temperature check.

He was taken aback and we had to explain that we lived in Beijing.

After that she bowed as if in apology and then returned to her station, vigilant for any other foreigners who may have the A (H1N1) influenza virus.

Then at the desk I saw a cute pink flyer in Chinese and English that says:

Attentive Reminder

Dear Friends, Welcome to Beijing.

If you have come from the countries or regions where influenza A (H1N1) cases occurred, here are the advices (sic) from Beijing Center for Disease Prevention and Control and Beijing Tourism Bureau:

- Please keep the information related to your trip;
- Please monitor your health status for 7 days;
- Please try to avoid going to crowded places, taking public transportations (sic) during the 7-days of self-monitoring. Please ask and keep receipts while you are taking taxis.

The last point is tedious -- how can anyone, particularly a tourist, avoid crowded places? And they are going to take the subway... The reason for receipts? They will probably track down every taxi driver who has possibly carried someone who has the virus and make them quarantine themselves.

The brochure then gives the phone number for the Public Health Hotline (which is probably in Chinese) and the website for the Beijing Center for Disease Prevention and Control. There are also numbers for a free ambulance service to the hospital in case you have a fever or other respiratory infections. It's 120 and 999 if you wanted to know.

While China is trying to contain the number of cases coming into the country, domestically there are now over 570 cases, with no fatalities yet.

The vigilant efforts China is doing are commendable, but it is just as important for the government to educate its own people about how people can catch the virus. Now's the time to tell them to stop spitting, littering, coughing or sneezing without covering their mouths and promoting using tissues and washing hands after going to the bathroom.

But no. It's really the foreigners who are bringing this virus in and it has nothing to do with China...

Friday, June 26, 2009

Remembering a Legend

It was a shocker to wake up this morning and hear the news that Michael Jackson had died of heart failure.
My most vivid memories are from highschool, watching his music videos with my friends and playing his vinyl record Thriller on the record player.
We all tried to imitate him, from wearing a silver glove, to military-style jackets, going up on our toes, and attempting to do the moonwalk (without much success). 
What's interesting is that young people in China were only a few years old when Jackson became a superstar as a solo artist and so they aren't familiar with his hits like Beat It, Billie Jean and even We Are the World, as a fundraiser song for the famine in Africa.
Instead Chinese fans know him from the 1990s, with his albums like Dangerous and Bad.
But what's interesting to note is that he was the one big artist from the United States they all knew and admired -- Madonna to many of them is just a name and they don't consider her much of an accomplished artist, as much as Jackson anyway.
Some say his lyrics appealed to them, while others thought his dancing was one of a kind.

Earlier this evening I went to a DVD shop at Yaxiu, the Cotton Market at Sanlitun, and as my friend and I were browsing through the fake DVD selection, a young Caucasian boy rushed in.

"Michael Jackson? Michael Jackson?" in English.

But the storekeeper replied, "All sold out!"

The boy's mother asked if they had sold a lot of Jackson's stuff.

"We sold it all," he said.

"Do you know why?" she asked.

"Yeah, of course!" he replied. He later explained to an American that he loved Jackson's voice and that his dancing was so cool.
Today I've been watching wall-to-wall coverage and tributes to the "King of Pop"... while I admired his artistry, especially in the 80s, it's sad that his personal life ended up being such a bizarre story with his marriages to Lisa Marie Presley and Debbie Rowe, his three children, charges of child molestation and then of course the plastic surgeries..
Hopefully he will be remembered for his contribution to pop culture, catching the wave of the MTV generation and making music videos more than just a way to promote his songs.
As one Chinese fan remarked, Jackson has gone to his Neverland. Amen. 

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Summer Heat

Yesterday and today Beijing has been suffering through a heat wave, with the next few days to be just about as hot.

It hit 40 degrees here two days in a row and lunchtime is just brutal.

While walking outside with an umbrella helps cut down the heat and creates mobile shade, my back gets all sweaty after a 10 minute jaunt.

And eating a hot lunch doesn't help ease the heat either! After eating a bowl of jiaozi or boiled dumplings, my face is dripping and need a tissue to wipe my face.

Luckily I'm not alone.

However, a good cooling tip is not to head to McDonald's for the 2.50 kuai ice cream, or milkshake at DQ, but to the neighbourhood store to get a yoghurt popsicle. It seems strange at first, but once you bite into it, it's a refreshing tart taste that's just perfect for a hot day. But then you have to eat it quickly otherwise it'll start melting all over your hand...

Just a few days ago, evenings were a balmy 18 degrees and you could leave the window open at night with a slight breeze.

But now with higher temperatures, the mosquitos have come to roost and the other night alone I was attacked with many bites on my arms and neck. Vicious insects.

Yesterday I took the bus home, and unfortunately there's no air conditioning. Although the windows were open, hot wind was blowing into my face, so hot, it made me feel groggy and fall asleep. Luckily I woke up just in time to get off at my stop!

Now the air conditioning is on and so is everyone else's... which can only lead to more greenhouse gases and global warming...

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

A Closed-book Case

Over six months after he was taken by police on December 8, it was finally announced today that political dissident and Charter 08 supporter Liu Xiaobo, 53, was formally arrested for activities allegedly aimed at overthrowing China's socialist system.
"Liu has been engaged in agitation activities, such as the spreading of rumours and defaming of the government, aimed at subversion of the state and overthrowing the socialism system in recent years," Xinhua News Agency quoted a Beijing police statement as saying.
While his lawyer Mo Shaoping has not been formally notified of the charges, apparently he himself cannot defend Liu because he had also signed the charter, which calls for major government reforms as well as freedom of the press and a multi-party system.
With charges such as subversion of the state and no further legal channels available to him, Liu's fate is pretty much sealed -- as the legal system is very much tied to the central government, he would not be prosecuted unless top levels had already decided the conviction which will pretty much be jail time.

"This use of state security charges to punish activists for merely expressing their views must stop," said Roseann Rife, Amnesty International's deputy program director for Asia and the Pacific. "This is another act of desperation by a regime that is terrified of public opinion."

As Liu is quite well known internationally and even US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has previously called for his immediate release, it is time for voices outside China to quickly organize a chorus condemning China's action. He cannot be left to fade into obscurity for fighting for what he believes is the best for the country.

Short-Term Benefits

The United States and European Union jointly filed a complaint with the World Trade Organization, claiming China's export restrictions amount to protectionism.
They claim China is limiting the amount of exports of bauxite and zinc, of which China is one of the world's largest producers, and giving an unfair advantage to domestic manufacturers who use these raw materials to produce goods.
"China is not only continuing but accelerating many of the protectionist approaches they've taken in the past to promote economic development," said Michael R. Wessel, who was appointed by Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House, to the United States-China Economic and Security Review Commission.
As a response, China has denied breaking WTO rules, but more importantly it will suffer backlash in its hypocrisy in its promises not to be protectionist and yet accusing others like the United States of doing the same.
On June 4, the National Development and Reform Commission ordered government agencies to buy only Chinese goods of all types with money from the government's $586 billion stimulus package.
Some Chinese experts say there's still room to buy foreign-made goods as many purchasing officials tend to favour international brands, or when no domestic alternatives are available.
While it is a good exercise in cost cutting and boosting domestic spending, it is not really getting to the core of the issue which is investing more in China's welfare and education system and tackling the issue of health care in order to give people more consumption confidence.
Many people are still scraping up whatever savings they have for any possible rainy day that may come their way.
Why such short-term thinking? China has a policy of long-term thinking when it comes to diplomatic relations, so why not the same when it comes to its own people? Or are officials so obsessed with good numbers on their records for promotions later?
But another interesting problem that may crop up because of this "Buy China" policy is the materials or goods officials purchase may be substandard and create more problems in the future.
There was a recent report that several dams along the Yellow River are close to collapse only a few years after being built. This means almost 40 percent of China's reservoirs are unsafe.
Shoddy construction, unqualified workers and embezzlement of funds are threatening dams' safety in Gansu Province, according to Chinese media.
This is just one example, but since much of the $586 billion stimulus is geared towards infrastructure like highways, roads and bridges, it might be possible that a few years after these things are built that they may fall apart...
Just a thought.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Filtering Morality

Google China has now apologized for what the government calls "spreading" pornographic images and vulgar links on its search engine.
Earlier the China Internet Illegal Information Reporting Centre said, "Google China's website has not installed filters to block pornography in accordance with the laws and regulation of our nation."
Cui Jin, a press officer with Google China said in an email statement: "We will continue to meet with the government to address their concerns, and we wish to communicate directly with them in regard to our services and progress in addressing this problem."
Google will now try to fix its service so that sexually explicit material won't come up in its search results.

What's interesting is that many believe some of the media coverage criticizing Google was fabricated.

Last Thursday's edition of Focus, CCTV's flagship news analysis program interviewed a university student named Gao Ye. He blamed Google for having an negative impact on one of his classmates, claming he was trying to do research but ended up finding pornographic links in his search results.

But later the story was discredited as it was later found out Gao was an intern at CCTV.

People soon realized that perhaps the media attacks on Google were coordinated, and this was a way for the government to justify the promotion of Green Dam-Youth Escort software, which will be implemented in all new computers from July 1.

Online search engines are not meant to filter out search results -- if you type in a query on Google.com, you should have access to every single link related to that subject and it is up to the user to sift through them to find the answer he or she is looking for.
What's next? Will the Chinese government demand online search engines to recommend the best search results to students who have no clue in deciding what's the best information they are looking for?
While the government's concerns about pornography being easily available to young people are justified, that is a matter for schools and parents to monitor and educate. In fact it is more important for the public to know what is good and bad, and not be only given filtered material.
It is only through repeated practice of learning how to make good choices through critical thinking can society evolve and develop. This skill is sorely missing in today's youth in China, which can only lead to devastating consequences when they get older... 

Monday, June 22, 2009

Yet to Take the Plunge

Before the Olympics last year, I had read reports that the public would be able to use the Water Cube in December 2008.
There was lots of talk of converting the venue into a public facility right away to make good use of it, and I was really looking forward to trying out the pool that Michael Phelps had swum in to clinch eight gold medals.
However, that time came and went, and the National Aquatic Center and the National Stadium or Bird's Nest seemed to attract more attention as tourist sites than as functional public buildings.
At one point last year, an elaborate fountain show presented to music was displayed in the Water Cube, making me wonder if the Las Vegas-style gimmicks would end soon and us avid swimmers could actually take a plunge in the pool that is apparently filled with purified water.
But lo and behold -- last night I heard on China Radio International that the Olympic pool was indeed open as of Saturday!
People have to pay 50 RMB (about $7) entrance fee for a two-hour swim, but that's not all.
They will have to present a health check certificate and a deep-water swimming certificate, as the pool is 2m deep.
No health certificate? You can get a health check on site -- for an additional 20 RMB -- and demonstrate you can swim 200m in any stroke.
In a way it's good -- it immediately weeds out those who are not serious swimmers, or those who just want to splash around and not swim laps.
Knowing me though, I'll probably be stopped for not having a swimming cap or not having my passport, something ridiculous like that. Believe me it happens and it's so irkesome to be so close, yet so far...

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Indian Feast

Yesterday after emerging from Solana Mall northwest of Chaoyang Park, my friend pointed out the Punjabi Indian Restaurant on Lucky Street, telling me he'd been there and it had been good.

And as it was just after 6pm we decided to give it a try.

It's a quaint place, with some over-blossomed silk roses as decoration, and wooden tables with sheets of glass on top and you can look at small rectangular boxes of various beans and spices. The Indian music is loud, while the waitresses are dressed in colourful outfits and on the whole are very helpful and attentive.

There's an all-you-can-eat buffet for just under 80 RMB including drinks, but we decided to order from the menu instead.

It's pretty extensive one that offers many variations so you have to read through the whole menu carefully before making the order.

For starters, the vegetarian samosas come in twos, filled mostly with potato with a spicy kick. However, it was terribly deep-fried with a thick crust that required extremely strong incisors to cut through the deep-fried dough.

Nevertheless, other dishes we ordered were very good. Mutton Tikka is fresh lamb seasoned with ground spices like cumin and paprika, skewered and roasted in a clay oven. This wasn't too spicy and had a fantastic flavour that could be further enhanced with a variety of sauces, some spicier, others not.

My other favourite was the Baingan Bharta, mashed eggplant cooked with tomatoes and onions as well as a variety of spices. It wasn't too spicy and the cornucopia of ingredients created a taste that was practically addictive.

Dum Aloo Kashmiri are roasted potatoes stuffed with nuts and raisins which is later cooked in a gravy made with Kashmiri spices. This dish was a bit weak, with not much taste in terms of texture from the nuts and raisins (that I didn't taste), but got the thumbs up from my dining companion.

To sweep up all the sauces we also ordered Paneer Naan, which is naan bread stuffed with cottage cheese; I didn't taste the cottage cheese, but it was lightly seasoned with spices like paprika and bits of coriander.

We also had a plain dosa, a large crispy pancake made of rice and lentil flour. Apparently it's an art to making dosas, and so far I have yet to come across one in Beijing that's as large, thin and crispy as one I tried in Hong Kong. This dosa was a tad oily, but still thin and on the whole quite crispy. Again, it was great for mopping up sauces on the plate.

To wash it all down we had two glasses of lassis, a sweet yoghurt drink.

In the end we barely finished it all, with some lamb left over and the bill came to 254 RMB ($37.15), which was probably a bit pricey, but the quality of the food was better than some other Indian restaurants I've tried in Beijing.

Punjabi Indian Restaurant
1-30 Lucky Street
Chaoyang Gongyuan Xilu

5867 0221

Saturday, June 20, 2009

American Suburbia in Beijing

This afternoon I felt like I was in suburban California.

There's a relatively new mall called Solana, just north of Chaoyang
Park's west entrance. There's a healthy expat community in the
neighbourhood, but most of the visitors today were local Chinese.

And I felt like I was in California because of the piazza-like layout
of the giant mall, and many American brand names like Nike and Cold
Stone Creamery. But what got my friend really excited was an L.L. Bean
outlet, which offered all kinds of clothing, footwear, accessories and
its well-known canvas tote bags. Everything in the store was 20
percent off which was a bonus.

What's also neat is that the mall has a small indoor ice rink. Today
the rink wasn't packed but what was interesting was seeing several
people wearing knee pads, a few beginners, and a few novices.

However the most annoying part was the layout of the mall -- there
isn't enough signage to tell people where to go around the sprawling
retail area. You are forced to wander around (much to the merchants'
delight), but frustrating when you are just looking for a particular

Other than big American brands though, there are some small odd shops
like a place selling "authentic" Tibetan rugs and local brands
presenting gawdy designs. It's hard to see how this mall has done its
marketing work and instead decided to make itself a free-for-all for
everyone and anyone who wants to buy something.

Regardless, we checked out a nice Italian restaurant called Invito,
opened by a Korean. It's got a karoke lounge in the basement, a deli
shop on the main floor and a high-end restaurant look upstairs.

The best part is sitting outside on the second floor on the balcony
overlooking a giant pond complete with lily pads, which is part of
Chaoyang Park. You don't even feel like you're in Beijing.

A nice escape once in a while from the madness of Beijing.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Alike or different?

After six days of protesting the election results in Iran, the
spiritual leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is giving a speech now at
Tehran University.

What's interesting is that CNN and many other medial outlets are
comparing the barring of foreign journalists from covering the street
protests to what happened a few weeks ago in Beijing in the run-up to
the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre.

They point out that while Internet connections are almost cut off in
Iran, it is similar to the few days leading up to June 4 that websites
like Twitter and Hotmail were blocked.

CNN has relied on "ireporters" on the scene, giving the media
organization pictures and footage of chaotic scenes, whereas in
Beijing, security guards kept opening up umbrellas to prevent
cameramen from filming shots of the square.

Coincidence or lazy journalism?

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Seeing Unlimited Possibilities

Traveling is one of the best way to open our minds and eyes to other
cultures, languages, foods and experiences.

Many who travel to China find it a fascinating place that
simultaneously surprises and shocks them compared with the
preconceptions they had before coming to the country.

They come back to their home countries with a greater understanding of
the people and how things are done here, though it's only the tip of
the iceberg.

For one of my ex-colleagues, her chance to travel to the United States
-- New York of all places -- was a life-changing experience.

Through a program sponsored by the US Government, she was able to not
only meet other women from developing countries, but also be matched
up with a top female executive at a media company.

Not only did she get to see how top executives work, but also have a
glimpse into their lifestyle -- traveling on a private jet and
attending parties where personalities like talkshow host Oprah and
actress Zhang Ziyi attended.

My friend M was inspired after she heard ambitious women there think
anything is possible, that age is not a factor in determining their
career paths. In China things are completely different, where women
and men must observe mandatory retirement at 55 and 60 respectively.

She also saw the differences in state-run and capitalist media operations.

"If their leader sets a goal, they all put their resources in it to
make it happen," she observed. "But in China, it's about pleasing the

M added there are no incentives in state-run companies, there was no
praise or raise, and by the same token, low performing employees
weren't punished or fired either.

But perhaps the greatest change she saw was in herself.

"You know I am 31-years-old and I have been married for six years,"
she said. "But in New York I felt so free -- I could do whatever I
wanted, eat whenever I want, sleep whenever I want... but here, for
some reason, I just defer to whatever my husband wants to do... maybe
I love him more than I love myself."

Her husbsand has already noticed the changes, even though she got back
only a few weeks ago.

She has already hinted to him she wants to go back to New York to
study or do an internship with the hopes of switching careers -- but
the problem of her biological clock ticking has also been weighing on
her mind.

I pointed out in the big scheme of things she is still young at 31,
and studying or doing an internship now for a year would not be too
late. Her husband had suggested she wait until after she had a child,
but it seems like he doesn't really know what's involved with having a

Nevertheless her four-week stay in the United States that included
Boston and Kansas were non-stop, filled with museum visits and
watching performances from plays and ballets to broadway shows.

Seems like she has a lot to think about -- changing the way she sees
herself and the world.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Wanting an Easy Out

An ex-colleague of mine in his mid 20s immigrated to Australia in
January this year.

His girlfriend of many years (and now wife) was already there, working
at a good job and she gained residency status, making her eligible to
sponsor him after they got married.

With the global economic downturn and being a new immigrant, he was
faced with two marks against him and was unemployed for over five

What he did everyday I have no idea, but probably trying to adjust,
having trouble understanding Aussie accents even though his English is
quite good. During that whole time his wife was financially supporting
the two of them.

But then last month he told me he was applying for a job and asked me
to help edit something he wrote as part of the application test.

Soon afterwards he got the job, working for a magazine that required
both Chinese and English skills.

I thought he was set and now was working on establishing his new life,
when he contacted me again a few days ago and told me he quit the job
he had only started weeks earlier.

He explained the new job put so much pressure on him (or rather he put
so much pressure on himself) that he couldn't sleep for a week and
then decided to give up.

I was shocked that he had quit so early in the game and only told me
after the fact and not when he was struggling when I could have
encouraged him or given him suggestions.

His boss hadn't even complained about his work -- in fact he had
praised him -- so it was more of my friend not feeling confident about
taking on new challenges despite having the ability to tackle them

My friend pined for his days back in China when things were easier
working for a state-run company, not having many responsibilities and
not much pressure to deal with.

Shocked and disappointed, I lectured him, warning that if he could not
withstand work pressures now, how could he handle having a child, or
paying a mortgage on a house?

"You're scaring me," he wrote, but surely he must realize it's the
truth. Welcome to the real world.

While he is not an only child, my friend is not the most ambitious
go-getter either. He's relatively easy-going and kind-hearted,
preferring to find easy-to-do solutions than working hard to overcome

Many Chinese here think immigrating is easy -- they believe only
privileged people can go abroad. But little do they realize that it's
more about attitude and willingness to adapt than how fat their bank
accounts are.

With the tables turned, my friend now understands the challenges I
face being on my own in Beijing and struggling with communication and
understanding how things are done in China.

However, his shying away from obstacles, especially ones he could have
overcome with a bit of sweat and tears doesn't seem like a promising
start to being a new immigrant, let alone an adult.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

A Favourable Verdict

In a trial that lasted less than two hours, one of the most talked
about cases in the past month is over.

Deng Yujiao was originally charged with murder for stabbing two
officials, one of whom died of the wounds in a karoke bar in Hubei
Province when they demanded sexual favours from her.

As soon as the story broke, there was immediate outcry, supporting
Deng, 21, for trying to defend herself against corrupt officials, one
of whom apparently hit her head with a giant wad of cash.

Because of massive public support for her, the charge was later
dropped to "intentional injury".

This morning the trial began at Badong People's Court and before
lunchtime the verdict was delivered -- Deng was cleared of all
charges. The court ruled that she had acted in self-defense, and
because of her "mental imbalance" she was found not guilty.

The case is so interesting mostly because it got so much coverage in
the media and online. The verdict was already decided in the court of
public opinion before the court of law had a chance to see the
evidence and hear the arguments.

But the court, which is controlled by the government, had to find Deng
not guilty, one way or another, otherwise there would be further
public outrage that the authorities didn't want to deal with. And the
"mental imbalance" gave the court an easy out.

If this was the United States, Canada or Europe, media outlets would
have been clamouring to get in touch with Deng to tell her story in
front of the cameras.

But maybe we will never hear from her again, with a possible condition
of her release being that she never speak publicly about the incident
ever again.

Nevertheless, it is a clear example that officials aren't above the
law and that the public will find a way to get justice for the
ordinary man or woman.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Damning the Dam

There's a lot of criticism within China about the upcoming Green
Dam-Youth Escort software that is required to be installed in all new
personal computers from July 1.

Many of the complaints are technical -- initial tests from the
University of Michigan show the unsophisticated filtering system would
be very easy for hackers to get into -- and even possibly hijack the
government's directives by stealing data or implanting viruses.

Others are annoyed the government is trying to clamp down further on
what people and see and read on the Internet. Surveys by four of
China's top online outlets say four out of five people would not use
the software or have it uninstalled.

Tests have shown the software doesn't just block pornography, as the
government claimed was the main intention -- but also politically
sensitive material, or anything that vaguely sounds bad. Even the
colour yellow, which is a nickname for porn, was filtered out.

Online, people are making fun of Green Dam, and the latest are anime
cartoons of Green Dam Girl (绿坝娘) dressed in a green army uniform and
carrying a stuffed rabbit, meant to be the logo of Jinhui. She also
carries a bucket of soy sauce to wipe out filth.

However, the government is still pressing on with the directive,
ordering the software designer, Jinhui Computer System Engineering, to
patch up the system to avoid bugs.

But with less than two weeks to go, will the software be ready by then?

Then there are claims by Solid Oak Software based in California that
part of its code to filter out pornography or material deemed violent
was stolen by Jinhui.

"I cannot deny that the two filters' databases of blacklisted URL
addresses might share similarities," Zhang Chenmin, general manager of
Jinhui was quoted as saying in China Daily. "After all, they are all
well-known international pornographic Web sites that all porn filters
are meant to block. But we didn't steal their programming code."

As Jinhui is under fire at all levels -- government, public and other
industry experts, it has a lot to prove in the next two weeks.

But the assault on Green Dam will not stop until it is indefinitely
postponed or canceled.

What's interesting is that no one has said this directive has hurt the
feelings of 1.3 billion Chinese people...

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Partying with Expats

Most Chinese have stereotypical views of foreigners, partly because they don't have much exposure to them.

While some may work directly with laowai on a daily basis, they don't necessarily know what expats do after work or on the weekends.

On Friday night, a small group of us went to Sanlitun for drinks to celebrate as one of them, a 24-year-old, will marry her boyfriend of nine years next week.

Besides myself there was a very attractive blond New Zealander who was born in Russia. And she stood out immediately, with her model looks and flirty cocktail dress.

Some young men chatted her up and she later suggested that we join them to another place for drinks before going dancing.

So we followed them to the Blue Frog, where on the third floor of The Village mall, there's a giant area for alfresco drinking and dining.

Towards the back the young men already had a big group of people hanging out, all having some kind of drink in hand.

A Chinese friend who has decent English but hardly goes out with foreigners was surprised to see so many expats around.

"I feel like I'm the foreigner!" she exclaimed, hearing so much English and seeing the plaza almost full of non-Chinese faces.

After two rounds of shooters, a bottle of vodka and several cocktails, she turned to me again and observed that laowai drink a lot.

"We Chinese like to eat and drink together, but foreigners just like to drink," she said. "Do they do this all the time?"

While it's widely understood foreigners make more money than locals, she was also probably surprised to see them spend their money so freely; that night they probably spent almost half her monthly wage.

I had to explain that unlike most locals like herself who have to go home every night to have dinner with their parents, expats here, especially ones that aren't married, don't have familial obligations and so they hang out with their friends... and inevitably end up at a bar drinking.

I also added some people do this everyday, others on the weekends. She couldn't fathom people drinking everyday, but there are some who can hold their alcohol and go to work sober the next day. However, later we saw a man we had chatted with earlier, passed out on the couch while the party continued around him.

The bride-to-be was also confused by the cultural shift.

She had assumed she would be paying for our drinks and such, only to find we chipped in to pay for her, and also bought her presents (lingerie of course).

"But I'm Chinese! And if I invite you out, I should be paying!" she exclaimed. "But you are paying for my drinks and you got me gifts!"

I explained that we were celebrating her bachelorette or hen party in a western way, which meant no worries about costs, and focusing instead on having fun.

For both women, it was quite an eye-opener, seeing laowai in their own manufactured expat environment and celebrating the last of her single days western style.

Friday, June 12, 2009

An Outrageous Facade

A few months ago I wrote about UN recommendations other countries had for China to improve on its human rights record.
However, yesterday at a Human Rights Council meeting to adopt the "Outcome Report on China," part of a required review process for all member states, the Chinese government rejected outright 70 of those recommendations.
This includes all recommendations related to freedom of expression and freedom of association, independence of the judiciary, guarantees for the legal profession, protection of human rights defenders, rights of ethnic minorities, reduction of the death penalty, abolition of reeducation-through-labor, prohibition of torture, media freedom, and effective remedies for discrimination.

This is because during the process, the Chinese government constantly made statements, such as, "There is no censorship in the country," and responses that the Chinese government would "never allow torture to be allowed on ethnic groups," despite ample evidence of abuses from human rights groups and international organizations.

"Amid heightening repression of China's human rights lawyers, a tightening chokehold on freedom of expression, and an ongoing crackdown in Tibet, the Chinese government has tried to whitewash its human rights record in the hope that the UN will just look the other way," said Juliette de Rivero, Geneva advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. "Its statements and denials bordered on farce."

In the "Outcome Report," the government agreed to a number of recommendations, the statement of intent was so broad, they neither acknowledge existing violations or show any intent to remedy the situation.

"China has betrayed its obligation as an elected member of the council to uphold 'the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights,'" said de Rivero. "UN member states should not let the review process work this way, or they risk rendering the main reform of the UN's human rights machinery irrelevant."

There are so many to recall, but one recent example is a blatant abuse of human rights.
Dissident Liu Xiaobo is one of the writers of Charter 08, an online petition that calls for greater democracy, multi-party elections as well as freedom of speech and press, as well as greater rule of law.
It has been making the rounds online and quietly gaining support, much to the fear of the Chinese government, which has tried to shut down any websites related to Charter 08.
While the 53-year-old Liu is officially under "residential surveillance", he is not at home; but rights groups he's being held by the police in a hotel in the suburbs of Beijing.
He was detained in December and not been heard from since. According to Chinese law, the authorities should have released him on June 8, a six-month period. If they want to continue holding him, they must press charges and give him access to his lawyer.
Instead, the police just notified his wife that Liu would be continued to be under "residential surveillance" and the investigation would continue and no charges laid. And despite repeated requests from his lawyer, Liu hasn't been able to communicate with him at all.
International calls for his release, including from authors Salman Rushdie and Umberto Ecco, as well as the European Union and the United States have fallen on deaf ears.
How can China say it has rule of law when it brazenly breaks its own laws?
And yet it continues. Liu is not the only one, but he represents all those who are innocent until proven guilty, but have had no access to a lawyer and don't even know what charges are being laid against them because the authorities haven't yet decided what to charge them with.
This blatant disregard for rule of law from within makes one wonder how China can be a responsible power on the international stage. China doesn't like others interferring in its domestic affairs, but really, a clean slate from within shows how it is accountable to its own people, and thus making it qualified to be accountable to the world. 

Thursday, June 11, 2009

China's Distinctive Scent

Doesn't matter where in the country they're from, people in Beijing seem to have the same habit -- wearing the same clothes several days in a row.
And if they have a new favourite shirt or dress, then they may even wear it two weeks straight -- even if it has a food stain.
This rule applies 365 days a year, during the bone-chilling winters to blazing hot summers.

There isn't much mutual understanding that after a hot day, perspiration accumulates on the said beloved clothes, creating a stink to put it mildly.

Which brings me to people wearing their favourite workout clothes at the gym.

This morning I was running on the treadmill, when a middle-aged man, probably in his late 30s got on the treadmill next to me. But before he started running, he opened the window in front of him for some fresh air which was a very good idea because the gym gets very stuffy without much air circulation.

After he figured out which TV show he wanted to watch on the personal screen hanging above him (a period drama), he proceeded to run quite fast, without much of a warm-up.

Then not long afterwards, I started to smell something bad on my left... like a shirt that had been through several workouts but still hadn't been washed...

If he hadn't opened the window I think I would have convulsed from the old sweat stench and gagged. The odorous perfume would have been so overpowering, we'd all have to evacuate the gym and wait several hours for the air to clear.

Of course I'm exaggerating, but he did smell bad and it was probably from the unwashed shirt.

Doesn't he realize he was creating a stink?

People don't seem to smell their clothes to make sure they are still relatively fresh before wearing it for the fifth time in a row. Nor do they seem to have a rule of washing an item of clothing after wearing it a few times.

Anti-perspirant sales aren't doing well here either.

Smell? What smell?

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

A Linguistic Concession?

Since Ma Ying-jeou became President of Taiwan in May 2008, relations between Taiwan and the mainland have been getting cosier.

This is an interesting twist in history considering Ma is with the Kuomintang Party, that fled China in defeat in 1949.

Soon after Ma came to power, talks immediately began about having increasing economic links -- increased direct flights across the Taiwan Straits instead of having to pass through Hong Kong, and more trade in a variety of sectors.

And as of late a few more Taiwan representatives and mayors have made visits to China with their own agendas, and warmly welcomed.

At no point in time was politics mentioned, but it was understood that a positive atmosphere could lead to some kind of resolution.

Nevertheless, speak to Taiwanese, and they are proud of their native heritage and their identity. They speak Taiwanese and have their own method of teaching Mandarin, by using a series of symbols and bo, po, mo, fo.

But yesterday Ma floated a trial balloon, suggesting that Taiwan adopt the simplified characters used in writing in China, a subtle cultural move in becoming closer to its former archrival.

"We hope the two sides can reach a consensus on (learning to) read standard characters while writing in the simplified ones," Ma told a visiting delegation of US-based Taiwanese community leaders.

"It is also our hope that the standard characters can be listed as World Heritage by the United Nations one day," he said in a statement.

But critics think Ma is conceding too much in his bid to appease Beijing.

"Ma is seeing China as his master. He is even trying to change our writing habits to please China, which is absolutely unnecessary," said Cheng Wen-tsang, spokesman for the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP.)

In the 1950s, Beijing began using a system of simplified Chinese characters to replace traditional ones which it deemed too complicated for the majority of the population to learn and become literate.

This intriguing move should get an interesting response from Taiwanese. Are they ready to concede this cultural identity? If they do adopt pinyin as well, does this mean Taipei will be Taibei?

Maybe mapmakers should consider working on changes now...

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

On the Defensive

Today the government came out to defend its "Green Dam-Youth Escort" software -- which it claims will protect young minds from being poisoned in cyberspace.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang reiterated the software would filter out pornographic and violent content on the Internet.

Critics have complained Chinese Internet users will not be able to get access to politically sensitive information.

But Qin defended the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology's July 1 directive, saying: "The purpose of this is to effectively manage harmful material for the public and prevent it from being spread," he said.

"The Chinese government pushes forward the healthy development of the Internet. But it lawfully manages the Internet," he added.

There are rumours the government has an army of thousands of Internet police who are constantly monitoring the net, blocking pornography sites or those that have information regarding the Tiananmen Square Massacre, Tibet, and Falun Gong, among others. They also input the latest buzz words that may turn up in online searches to prevent online users from getting information they want.

However, the number of proxy servers and websites are constantly growing, making even the task of blocking even harder for these faceless Internet police.

So... perhaps someone suggested pre-empting the need to block them by forcing all new computers in China to have pre-installed software that automatically blocks what the government deems as sensitive.

All the new computers are supposed to have the software already pre-installed and include a CD of it in case the computer crashes or it doesn't work properly.

But some of my friends here are angered by the move, saying "it's stupid" and that people are not going to take this sitting down. One even predicted people are going to be so outraged when they find out that the exercise will fail, and that someone will have to resign for it.

What would young nationalists known as fenqing think about this? On the one hand they want to support the government, but this latest requirement severely curtails their freedoms on the Internet.

It's surprising that there hasn't been much ranting on the Internet about this on Chinese online forums...

Or maybe those have been blocked too?

Monday, June 8, 2009

Fate Sealed on an Exam

Yesterday was the start of the national college entrance exams, or gaokao. It's a three-day "battle to determine their fate" -- literally.
These final examinations will determine if these students will make it into the post-secondary institution of their choice.
This year more than 10 million students will write gaokao, with 62 percent of them expected to be admitted into universities across the country.
Parents and their children are stressed out every year from this process and it's easy to see why.
These anxious parents will do just about anything to give their child that little extra advantage. While some hired tutors to help their son or daughter study, others even arrange to stay in hotels near the schools so that there is less of a commute time to the examination site, or give their child a quieter place to study.
And it's not just academics, but also thinking about your competitors. All 10 million of them.
Once the exams are marked, the results are ranked and those at the top automatically get entrance into the top universities. But there is a caveat.
A friend of mine who wrote the exam five years ago explained it to me like this: When students apply to write gaokao, they can only choose ONE university to enter, provided they do well on the exam. So if a top student wishes to go to Peking University, one of the best universities in China, but due to frayed nerves or other stresses doesn't score high enough on the exam, he or she will not be admitted into Beida and also will lose the chance to try to apply to another university that year.
That is why students have to think very realistically of their chances of getting into the university of their choice, and also try to anticipate how many other people may apply there as well.
And for those who know they don't have a chance of entering elite schools must contend for a spot in second-class universities, again with the same concept of only having one shot at getting in.
Every year around this time critics come out saying the gaokao system has to be changed. Some say the results of these exams should not be the be-all and end-all for these high school students -- instead they should be combined with their academic performance throughout the year to show consistency in case a top student flubs on the exam, or if a not so bright applicant mysteriously aces gaokao.
Others say more attention should be put on extra-curricular activities, believing well-rounded students are better than purely academically-focused ones.
While it is good for China to have a national standard for post-secondary students, gaokao has become an extremely stressful milestone in students' lives, as which university they go to will determine their career path and earning potential.   
Some students are so freaked out about the exams that they have avoided them altogether, which is not a good sign either. Others, due to their financial situations, would rather find work than write the exam, thinking even office workers can get laid off in these economically uncertain times, so what's the point of going to university?
Either way the government needs to encourage its young people to have as much education as possible -- that is the only way for its society and economy to progress.

Another Great Firewall

The Wall Street Journal reports a scary development -- starting from July 1, all personal computers sold in China must have software that blocks access to certain websites.

It's yet another step in the government's ability to prevent (or protect, depending on which view you look at it) people from getting the information they want.

The government claims the main aim is to block access to pornography sites, thus calling the software "Green Dam-Youth Escort". The colour green in Chinese means free of illicit content, unlike yellow, which is a metaphor for porn.

The Green Dam software would link up the PCs to a regularly updated database of banned sites and prevent users from getting access to them.

While the government has yet to publicly announce this new policy on buying computers as of next month, its May 19 announcement says the requirement is aimed at "constructing a green, healthy and harmonious Internet environment, and preventing harmful information on the Internet from influencing and harming young people."

What's interesting is that Green Dam developers have said the software can be turned off or uninstalled -- but there was no indication of how easy that would be. It should also be noted the software developer has links to China's security ministry and military.

Also there's a fear that these computers, being linked to a main database, would be more susceptible to hacking.

The government is determined to control what people can and can't see on the Internet and this is yet another step on "protecting" its citizens.

However, for those who are more enlightened, the news couldn't be more frightening.

As soon as word gets out, especially in Chinese, people will be trying to buy up their PCs now before this software requirement comes into effect.

Do these PC makers realize people are not going buy their computers in China because they have become complicit in the government's demands? Join the queue behind Yahoo and Google...

And does the government realize these new computers may become more vulnerable to hacking? Or is this a way for the government to hack its own people's computers and go in and see what's in their hard drives?

It's a scary thought that can't be underestimated.

Wonder what Chinese Internet users, called "netizens" will think of this!

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Anger at the Virtual Wall

In the last few days, due to the 20th anniversary of Tiananmen, several Chinese websites have been inaccessible due to "maintenance".

A knock-off of Twitter called Fanfou.com, a downloading site called veryCD.com, and kaixin.com and xiaonei.com, similar to Facebook, all have a message saying they are "undergoing maintenance" and they should be back up by now.

What's interesting though is that young people have been very angry, not being able to access their favourite sites.

"F*** you GFW!" is what one says, referring to the Great Firewall, the nickname for the complex, high-tech system that blocks many sites, usually western ones from being shown in China.

Usually the majority of Chinese don't care about blocked sites, as most don't read English-language ones.

But now it affected them directly and they were very annoyed.

Now they are beginning to understand what us foreigners living in China go through on a DAILY basis.

Since March YouTube has been practically inaccessible; Blogspot since mid-May, and Twitter since last Tuesday. You can use a proxy server, but that can be slow and tedious.

Perhaps these Chinese web users will realize how pervasive the GFW is and greater numbers will try to find other ways around the system and virtually try to bring it down.

Or maybe that's hopeful thinking.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Driving into Uncertainty

The day after General Motors announced it was filing for bankruptcy, it said it was selling Hummer to a Chinese company.
That got heads turning.
The Chinese buyer? Sichuan-based Tengzhong Heavy Industrial Machinery Co Ltd.

On the company's website, it says Tengzhong manufactures heavy machinery equipment, like construction and energy industry equipment.
Tengzhong has said it will retain Hummer's senior management and operational team, as well as over 3,000 employees who build these monster vehicles.
"The Hummer brand is synonymous with adventure, freedom and exhilaration and we plan to continue that heritage by investing in the business," said Tengzhong CEO Yang Yi.

The deal is estimated to be worth under $500 million and will be completed by the end of the third quarter. And when it goes through, it will be the first Chinese acquisition of a brand from a major US automaker.

While some in China felt proud of a domestic company taking over an international brand, others were skeptical of how successful it would be in managing the company overseas.

Chinese firms haven't had much luck in figuring out how to not only manage foreign employees, but also in moving the brand forward, particularly in innovation.

Lenovo is one of them. In 2005 it acquired IBM's personal computer division, ThinkPad for $1.75 billion.

Last year the company threw in all its resources into the Beijing Olympics, sponsoring the torch relay by designing the torch, and supplying all the computer equipment and servicing for the Games.

The mass marketing and advertising it generated was a source of national pride, but many outside of China still don't realize that Lenovo acquired IBM ThinkPad. Also with the global financial crisis, overseas customers in places like Europe have cut orders significantly and Lenovo suffered a fourth quarter loss of $96.7 million.

The computer maker is struggling to figure out how to not only get out of the red, and also what it takes to be on top of the game to compete with Apple. It missed a strategic opportunity to move into the consumer market instead of just focusing on corporate sales, but that would have also meant trying to create new products. Lenovo was probably thinking the old adage, if it ain't broke, don't fix it.

But in today's competitive world, just continuing to churn out a product with minor technical improvements here and there aren't enough to stay in the game. And Apple is a perfect example of innovation and being in touch with consumer wants and needs.

That's why some in China are questioning if a privately-owned company -- some even say it is owned by the government -- has the experience to manage not only an overseas company, but also an international brand.

Thankfully there aren't many Hummers on Chinese roads, but they are all owned by rich people, including coalmine owners in Shanxi Province, where many disasters involving coalminer deaths are located. Perhaps these Hummer lovers want to show who really is king of the road.

And maybe Tengzhong is doing the same thing, trying to gain quick notoriety for its purchase. With the environment more focused on people's minds and governments around the world pushing for people to buy smaller, more fuel-efficient cars, how many more Hummers can Tengzhong sell?

It seems like it's purchasing a brand that will soon go the way of the dinosaur. Hummers have run their course. They don't belong on the roads anymore and acquiring it seems like the least forward-thinking decision ever.

While Tengzhong probably got Hummer for a deal, it's probably GM's best business decision in a while.


Thursday, June 4, 2009

Eventual Vindication

Former pro-democracy leader Wang Dan tried to send a message to Chinese on the mainland -- to wear white today to mark the 20th anniversary of Tiananmen.
White is the colour of mourning for Chinese.
However, it seems few heeded his words, as the exiled former leader is based in the United States and the mention of his name is like saying a forbidden word.
A few of us foreigners are dressed in white in the office today, but other than that it has basically been a day just like any other, which is disappointing.
Thankfully though, the memory still lives strong in Hong Kong.
It is expected tens of thousands of people will descend on Victoria Park for a candelight vigil tonight.
They will make speeches, sing songs and shout for the government to acknowledge its wrongdoing, for the truth to be told on the mainland, and for democracy in all its forms to live on.
In the meantime, Hong Kong is fighting for its own democracy and freedoms. And only with greater awareness and appreciation for rights and freedoms can people fight with passion.
And commemorating this taboo subject is one way to protect their freedoms.
To those who died on June 3-4, 1989, we will remember. We will never forget you.
Twenty years later the truth is starting to come out with Zhao Ziyang's book and others speaking out. It was only a matter of time.
We will find out the truth eventually so your deaths will not be in vain.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Misinformed Youth

In our office we have some flat-screen TVs and are able to get some satellite channels like the BBC, CNN, and HBO.
And today on the eve of Tiananmen, we tuned into CNN and watched two documentaries. The first was a timeline that went through the chronology, showing clips of Premier Li Peng, and the picture of Zhao Ziyang with a bullhorn trying to tell the students to leave the square, and his assistant, a young Wen Jiabao behind him.
The other was about one of the pro-democracy student leaders, Chai Ling, who fled to the United States and is now running a software company for universities. In what may be a technical problem, we couldn't really hear what she was saying and had to turn up the volume.
The story shows her meeting a man who lost his legs 20 years ago, his legs crushed by a tank when he tried to save a girl. Chai says that she feels indebted to him and says she will do what she can to support him.
A few of my younger colleagues who were toddlers two decades ago, gathered around the TV to watch and interestingly they laughed when Chai Ling's name was mentioned, as well as when the announcer said hundreds, maybe thousands died. Why laugh? What's so funny about that?Twenty years on we still don't know the truth about the numbers.
However, it was funny when at the end of the stories that the host added CNN broadcasts of the Tiananmen anniversary were being blocked in China.
Not. Yet.

Then we watched a BBC story about Chinese students studying in the UK and asking what they knew about what happened 20 years ago.

One young woman professed that in her first year overseas, she knew more about Tiananmen than in the previous 22 years of her life.

Others said that people did know, but it was harder to find information in China.

The story concluded by saying that being abroad had opened their eyes.

Then one of my colleagues, a 20-something young man came over and muttered that the BBC story was so biased.

I asked him why he said that and he said that it was annoying for them to say that being overseas had given them more information about June 4 because you can find it in China.

Another young woman piped in, saying people of their generation did know, but they had to know where to find the information.

Explaining that it was just another angle to the story, the young man didn't seem to believe me, saying the west is so biased about what happened.

He even asked me if I thought foreign governments were involved in manipulating the student movement, and if democracy means overthrowing the government.

I tried to explain that the students were idealistic -- all they wanted were greater freedoms and accountability from the government -- they were not looking to overthrow the government. In fact, I said, they were staunch nationalists.

This completely threw him off, as he had never heard this side of the story before, having been taught years ago that the June 4 incident was about a group of people who were anti-Party and anti-socialist and these rebels had to be put down.

He asked me to explain why the movement grew so large, and that's why he thought foreign governments were behind it.

I said that people first turned out to mourn Hu Yaobang because they thought he was a good man, and from there, more and more people started coming to the square, that it was a spontaneous action.

He claimed to have a lot of knowledge about what really happened, but it seemed so skewed to me.

"Were you there? Were you in Beijing at the time?" he asked in a challenging tone.

I said I watched it on TV and saw the news reports.

But then he retorted, saying I was watching it through foreign media eyes, again biased in his view.

There was no reasoning with him that in good journalism, the story is as balanced as possible, with as many different views presented so that the viewer or reader can make up his or her own mind.

The only thing we could agree on was that Tiananmen was a horrible crime, killing innocent people.

Why can't these young people see that because of the hundreds, maybe thousands of people who died, they are enjoying the freedoms and better living standards they demanded?

But perhaps they will never realize that; and that is the tragedy of the next generation.

They do not even know their own recent history, and from that will never understand what it means to fight for democracy and accountability.

I mourn for those who died, innocent lives who fought for what they believed in.

And I mourn for the next generation, the vast majority of whom will never know -- or want to know -- the truth behind June 4.

Squared Off

Today after work I made my third annual pilgrimage to Tiananmen Square on the eve of June 4.

The past two times I was able to get onto the square and walk around despite many uniformed and probably plain clothed policemen milling around. Locals wandered around like tourists, playing with kites or taking pictures.

But this year was different.

I got there just in time for the flag-lowering ceremony at dusk.

However, we weren't even allowed to go into the square at all -- the entrances from the subway were blocked off with rope and two guards at each entrance. Police above ground were stationed everywhere, preventing people from crossing the street to go to the square either.

This was strange, as I've witnessed another flag-lowering ceremony and we were allowed onto the square, but not in the cordoned off area where the flag was.

So we had to make our way to the side street to watch the flag being lowered and then traffic stopped as soldiers carried it across Chang'an Avenue.

People anxiously took pictures of the flag as it was lowered and then when it was over, many of them made their way to bus stop or back down into the subway. Others lingered a bit longer, but as it was getting dark there wasn't much point in hanging around.

The government is taking no chances this year.

People go on public property -- a place that belongs to them.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Cutting Off the Outside World

For over two weeks Chinese censors have blocked Blogspot.com, the website where I blog.

People haven't been able to access YouTube for a while unless they use a proxy server.

And today the powers that be or "net nannies" as some like to nickname the censors, have blocked Hotmail and Twitter.

Does this mean Gmail and Yahoo will be blocked in the next few days too? I hope not.

But if they are, you will know why I haven't blogged...

This shows how seriously (or insecure) the government is about Thursday...

Supporting the Underdog

Public opinion has saved a waitress in Badong county, Hubei Province from being charged with murder after she stabbed an official who allegedly demanded sexual favours from her.
The story made headlines last month when on May 10 Deng Yujiao was cornered by Deng Guida (no relation), the head of a trade department of the town, demanded "special services" -- in other words -- sexual services -- at the Yesanguan Xiongfeng hotel she worked as a pedicurist.
He and his subordinate cornered the 21-year-old and Deng hit her on the head with a wad of money.
She said Deng Guida, 44, said: "Don't you want money? You have never seen any money! How much money do you want? Would you believe it if I beat you to death with money. I'm going to get a truckload of money and squash you to death."
They pushed her onto a sofa where she either managed to get a fruit knife or a pedicurist's knife -- the story is foggy here -- from her purse and stabbed Deng who later died of his injuries, The subordinate was injured.
After the incident she called police and voluntarily surrendered.
On May 18 the police said what she did as a crime and could face murder charges, not taking into account she gave herself up. They claimed the murder weapon was a fruit knife and so it could have been premeditated, but many of the general public believed she used whichever instrument she had as self-defense.
The authorities also later claimed that Deng was mentally unstable, finding medication in her purse.
But when the story hit the Internet, there was outrage against the official for not only treating the young woman as a sex object, but also for officials who think they can get away with mistreating the people they should be serving.
One said: "Why do so many government officials like to make fun of the public? Don't you know that with each time public trust in you is falling?"
Another wrote: "This case is not just about Deng Yujiao. It's about the issue of trust of the Government, about the issue of public confidence."
Some wondered whether the money used to hit Deng on her head were taxpayers' money and were angered by the strong possibility.
The case attracted so much media attention on the town that police went so far as to beat up two reporters who were trying to get more information on the story and tried to seal off the town from anymore bad press. 
Also the police apparently put pressure on Deng's mother to fire the two lawyers who were defending her. The pair were so shocked, saying: "We wish to express our strong indignation at the improper actions of the Government."
But now there is vindication.
Deng was later released on bail and yesterday it was reported that two officials related to the case were sacked, and one of them who pushed Deng lost his Communist Party of China membership.
And today it was reported by Xinhua that the murder charge against Deng has been dropped. She will instead be charged with using "excessive force" in defending herself against sexual assault.
This shows how strong public opinion can be in China and how it can sway the legal system -- which is basically controlled by the government. One will first be tried in the court of public opinion before the court of law.
So make sure your story is a good one.

Monday, June 1, 2009

A Sign of Change?

The government has never officially acknowledged its responsibility for the Tiananmen Square Massacre.

Every year foreign media look for any signs of change in the status quo but it has always been the same.

However, today the Global Times published an article called "Evolution of Chinese intellectuals' thought over two decades" and in it, it mentions the "June 4 Incident" -- probably the first time in a long time in Chinese state media.
The story talks about how in the 1980s intellectuals were gung-ho about the west, "an era of enlightenment on democracy for intellectuals," said Xiao Gongqin, a history professor at Shanghai Normal University.

But after the "June 4 Incident broke out in 1989 and after that intellectuals in China 'switched to silence', according to Zhang Liping, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

The mention of this paragraph has been reported in foreign media, which makes one wonder if this means the government is willing to acknowledge the elephant in the room.
We will have to see in the next few days...
Meanwhile in Hong Kong, the only city on the mainland where the Tiananmen Square massacre is remembered every year, former General Party Secretary Zhao Ziyang's memoirs Prisoner of the State are selling like hotcakes.
The English version was released a week earlier, but it's the Chinese version that has people excited, mostly because it's transcribed from Zhao's own words.
Those hoping to smuggle copies across the border may want to think twice, as border staff have been instructed to check those coming in from Hong Kong.

Nevertheless, it was heartening to see the city held a march on the weekend remembering the massacre and no doubt there will be a candlelight vigil held in Victoria Park on Thursday.

Last Wednesday, the University of Hong Kong released a poll saying that 69 percent of Hong Kongers felt the crackdown was a mistake, and 61 percent thought the Chinese government should stop condemning the protests. The survey was conducted earlier last month based on random telephone interviews with 1,011 people.

Like others around the world, Hong Kong people were shocked by what happened 20 years ago; many are still wary of the Chinese government and its track record.

We can only hope the Chinese government will recognize what it did 20 years ago. With more mounting evidence and testimony, and bolder calls for accountability, how can it escape the truth?